Email Industry Disagreements: Where Do You Stand?

After 15 years or so of marketing via email, a solid body of knowledge and best practices is evolving, based on both experience and research.

However, the industry still hasn't reached consensus on a number of fundamental precepts in email marketing. In these "debates," followers of each side often make compelling, even impassioned, arguments why their view should prevail.

I initially came up with a list of about eight disagreements, but narrowed it to three biggies due to space constraints. (I'm saving the biggest debate -- "permission is required" versus "CAN-SPAM doesn't require permission" or "reputation supersedes permission" -- for a future column.)

So, here is my list of three of the industry's biggest arguments:

1. Single vs. Double Opt-in: Most marketers will say they back permission, but they split over whether just collecting the email address (single opt-in) is enough or if the better approach is to confirm the subscription as well.

Single Opt-in (SOI) Argument: It builds bigger permission lists more quickly. You won't lose subscribers who don't confirm their addresses, either because the confirmation gets snagged in spam filters or because they simply never confirm. The bottom-line argument: bigger is better; why risk losing potential subscribers to spam filters and a potential change of heart?

Double Opt-in (DOI) Argument: Double (also frequently referred to as confirmed) opt-in typically yields fewer but better email addresses, because the confirmation process sifts out typing errors and malicious or deliberately incorrect addresses. Most ISPs recommend DOI/COI. A key benefit is the confirmation record should you need to prove to an ISP that an angry subscriber actually did opt in. Quality is the key goal. Your list will be cleaner and comprised of people that, because they had to take an extra step, will likely be more responsive.

My Take: I'm a fan of the DOI/COI process because of the list quality, likely better deliverability and response rates and permission record. Also, although I've not seen any specific research, I'm not convinced that DOI/COI yields a smaller list. A single opt-in process will lose subscribers when the first email bounces from bad addresses, followed quickly by attrition in the first month or so from higher unsubscribe, spam complaint and inactive rates.

2. Checked vs. Unchecked Boxes: Some marketers utilize forms with the email permission box already checked, meaning the person has to remove the check to avoid receiving email. Others use an unchecked box that requires an action (checking the box) and achieves a higher level of consent.

Pre-checked Argument: People who don't uncheck are still giving their permission, provided the box is not hidden or disguised. Pre-checked boxes are not illegal, and you will have a much larger list over using an unchecked box. Additionally, many marketers say that they are under pressure to grow their list to meet sales and acquisition cost-per-subscriber goals. When combined with growing list churn, checked seems to be the only option.

Unchecked Argument: Requiring subscribers to check a box meets CAN-SPAM requirements for affirmative consent, where checked boxes don't. As with DOI/COI, requiring an affirmative action assures you that the subscription is intentional and leads to a higher quality, more responsive list. An unchecked approach will also lead to less list churn through lower unsubscribe and spam complaint rates. Finally, some white lists and accreditation services do not allow the use of pre-checked boxes.
My Take: I prefer unchecked boxes because they require a positive action, and again, as with double opt-in, give you a higher-quality list. Pre-checked boxes can contribute to potential delivery problems including a likely higher spam complaint rate. But I certainly feel for those marketers who are under pressure from bosses to grow their lists at all costs - and who are unable to convince them of the better way.

3. Remove vs. Retain Non-responders: All email lists contain a significant and growing percentage of inactive subscribers, typically defined as those who don't open or click on your email messages for some period of time appropriate for your business (e.g., 12 or 18 months). In fact, as I outlined in an earlier column, most email lists will be comprised of one-third to two-thirds or more inactives. The debate is over whether to keep mailing to these people in hibernation, or remove them and focus your efforts on the actives and likely reap better deliverability.

Removers' Argument: However affordable email is, sending to thousands or millions of non-responders is not free. And, as ISPs increasingly filter or block messages that have a high concentration of inactive addresses, why risk reduced delivery in the chance that a handful of people might suddenly reawaken after a few years? Removing inactives also enables you to have a better picture of email performance and allocate greater resources to increasing response rates from those who are active.

Retainers' Argument: The inactive subscribers requested your email at one time. If your purchasing cycle is long, it's not unusual to have people not buy more often than once or twice every few years or more. Email is relatively inexpensive, so why not continue mailing in the chance that someone will take an action? As long as they don't report you for spamming, and the address doesn't bounce, you waste the money you spent on acquisition if you delete these subscribers without waiting for the unsubscribe.

My Take: I line up with the removers, in part because of the wasted-resource issue, but also to avoid potential deliverability problems from sending repeatedly to addresses an ISP might have identified as inactive. I also prefer working with a list of actives and having a more accurate sense of actual list performance. But I also prefer to remove inactives gradually and only after implementing a program to reactivate non-responders. In many cases, the "inactive" subscriber might really be a potential high-value customer; it is just that your email program is really crappy.

Where do you line up on these and other "industry disagreements?" Please share your favorite disagreement or argument in the comments section below.

Until next time, take it up a notch



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